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 Post subject: Humor: Orchestration for the Modern Wind Ensemble
PostPosted: Tue Feb 19, 2008 1:36 pm 
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PRINCIPLES OF ORCHESTRATION FOR THE MODERN AMERICAN WIND ENSEMBLE
by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson

*******

For a long time now I have lamented the lack of literature on the title subject, so recently I set out to correct that. Should you find any part of this article uninformative or unfunny, I will deny all responsibility for writing that passage and chalk it up to "editorial interference."

Enjoy.

To properly compose for the modern American wind ensemble it is important to not only understand the roles, capabilities and limitations of each instrument (touched on lightly here, covered in great detail in other texts), but to grasp the intricacies of the psyches of the various instrumentalists. This latter part will be the main focus of my article. The decision was made to start at the bottom of the concert staff and work my way upwards, grouped vaguely by instrument families when necessary, and pulled out of order when the whim suited me.

Percussion
The function of the percussionist in the modern wind ensemble is purely rhythmic. Sure, there are melodic percussion instruments like the vibes and marimba; but since each of these instruments costs as much as a nice, new, European four-door sedan, and because a half-dozen sets of mallets for each instrument will run you close to a home mortgage payment, absolutely no one with any common sense or expendable income owns one of these privately. Your melodic percussionist is likely a depressed piano student who is required to be in an ensemble, and was relegated to the keyboard instruments because... well, duh. And he's also the only percussionist that can actually read music.

Your average percussionist thinks and functions like your average seven-year old, or like your average forty-year old after twenty years of heavy drug use. They are largely cheerful and happy-go-lucky, and can easily be distracted by jingling keys or other shiny, noisy objects, which is why they took up percussion in the first place. As long as they can hammer away on some poor, unsuspecting inanimate object with a pair of sticks the percussionist is content ("unsuspecting inanimate object" consists of everything up to and including sleeping band members on the bus on the way home from festivals and competition; you have been warned). However, much like Carrot Top or Batman, percussionists are only truly happy when they get to play with every toy in the toy chest.

Nine out of every ten musical compositions will have percussion parts for the same three instruments: snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals. It's almost a mantra for percussionists, and you can occasionally hear them chanting: "snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals," and not just because their vocabulary is usually limited to 200 words or less. You could write a percussion part that consisted of nothing but quarter notes, but as long as it was for wood block, vibraslap, whipcrack, brake drum and ocarina, for the percussionists it would be their favoritest piece ever.

A percussionist's rehearsal time is spent daydreaming about the current (or next year's) marching band field show or winter percussion show, and they can often be found practicing either of these on drum pads or thighs while the conductor talks to the winds.

Double Bass
Sing along with me: One of these things is not like the other...

Strings have difficulty matching the volume of winds, which is why symphony orchestras are comprised of twice as many strings as woodwinds and brass combined. So I'm not sure who the original genius was that thought adding one or two individual string basses to the wind ensemble would create a marked improvement in sound. The double bass is really only useful for doubling the tuba parts in soft passages (bowed, since a single string instrument playing pizzicato at ff can still be easily drowned out by an asthmatic chihuahua with whooping cough).

Being the only string player in a room full of winds and percussion can be daunting, and the other members of the ensemble will usually treat the bass player like the pariah he most certainly is. Luckily, most wind ensemble string bass players are borrowed from the school's jazz combo and not the orchestra, and are therefore often too high to really notice or care. A double bass player's rehearsal time is usually spent rereading Jack Kerouac's On the Road for the 9,672nd time.

Tubas
Voted "most likely to still find the whoopee-cushion hilarious at age forty," tuba players are amongst the most affable of all musicians. You can write pretty much anything for the tubas and get away with it, though they do occasionally tire of whole notes. Buy the tuba player a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon, however (since all tuba players are descended from hearty, Midwestern stock whether they realize it or not), and even the whole notes become okay.

Assuming standard time, the tuba player's favorite note is the eighth note. A bunch of eighth-notes on the score makes for a very happy tuba player, because they provide the illusion of having a moving, even melodic line without requiring any real work. Sixteenth notes require practice, valuable time that could be much better spent drinking. The tuba player has lost all skills of harmonization: they are so used to playing the root of every chord that should the composer attempt to write any other note in the triad the tuba player will assume it is a mistake and correct it to the root.

A tuba player's rehearsal time is usually spent laughing at the trombone players emptying their slides' spit valves on the trumpets in the row in front of them, laughing at the (usually destructive) hijinks of the percussionists ("it's like the Three Stooges with chainsaws!"), or daydreaming about ways to turn their entire instrument into a beer bong.

Euphonium (or "Baritone Horn" to the lay-person)
Often you will find baritone parts in "treble clef" and "bass clef," and this is an important distinction, because there are two very different types of baritone players. The treble clef baritone is invariably a former trumpet player who switched to baritone under duress; he/she will love the fast sixteenth-note runs that will gloss over their lack of tone quality and loathe the long tones that expose their lack of tone quality. The bass clef baritone is invariably a former trombone or tuba player who switched to baritone under duress; he/she will love the long tones that exhibit their terrific tone quality and loathe the fast sixteenth-note runs that expose their lack of manual dexterity, inspire panic attacks and (occasionally) self-defecation. Because of this, no matter what you the composer write for this instrument at least 50% of the players are guaranteed to hate you.

It's a known fact that only six musicians in the past 100 years have actually started on the baritone as their primary instrument, and this is mainly because 99.9% of the population thinks "euphonium" is either a dangerous medical condition requiring a hefty dose of antibiotics or a universal punch-line to any joke imaginable ("Euphonium? I hardly knew him!"). A baritone player's rehearsal time is always evenly divided between glaring at the conductor for choosing a piece of music with such a crappy baritone part and ogling that flute player that always wears the low-cut shirts.

Trombones
Trombone players are the chimpanzees of the ensemble. This is not a reference to their excess body hair or disgusting habit of picking insects off of each other and then eating them, but rather to the fact that they are the mischievous clown princes and princesses of any wind ensemble or orchestra. A trombonist's entire life revolves around messing with other performers and, in turn, being messed with. This particular yin and yang has been going on for around six hundred years, ever since the pre-cursor to the modern trombone was given the dignified name of "sackbut" or "sackbutt" (heehee! "Butt!").

Trombones are designed more for tone than agility and yet are directly descended from the trumpet, hence their cylindrical bore as opposed to the conical bore of the other low brass. To punish the trumpets for unleashing this hell upon the world, most conductors choose to place the trombone section directly behind the trumpet section, so that trombone players may consistently empty their spit valves into the trumpet players' cases, jackets and hair. To mess with the trombone section, it became an unwritten rule amongst all composers to choose at random which clef to write the trombone parts for any particular piece. As a result, you can find trombone music in bass clef (common in the band and orchestral repertoire), tenor clef (common in the orchestral repertoire), alto clef (common amongst Russian and Eastern European composers) and even treble clef (British brass bands).

With most instruments, tuning the instrument requires stopping to adjust tubing. The trombone is entirely adjustable tubing, so it's unacceptable for a trombone to be out of tune at any time. A study conducted in the late 1990s determined that 86.75% of all heart attacks and strokes suffered by band directors were directly induced by atonal trombone playing. Because of this, it has become fashionable amongst trombone players to have one player in the ensemble be a semi-tone off from everyone else every 13th day. The yin and yang continues.

A trombone player's rehearsal time is spent hiding behind their music stands, telling extremely rude jokes to one another and plotting their next practical joke against a particular target in the ensemble. Trombone players pay so little attention to their conductor that they could not pick him out of a line-up after the conductor had just mugged them (Richard Strauss knew this and took full advantage of it, inviting trombone players to disreputable card games at which he invariably won back their salaries).

Horns
I don't know who originally invented the french horn, but it had to have been a conductor. The horn is a conductor's dream: an instrument where it's impossible to ever get everything right all at the same time and there's always a reason to yell at the performer. The french horn (really, no capital letters are deserved here) lacks the agility of the other valve brass for active melodic lines, thus the function of the horn is often relegated to meandering lieder melodies and pure harmonic accompaniment. This explains why every wind ensemble and orchestra piece ever written has between four and sixty-five horn parts; amongst which every note of the chord except the root is duly covered. The horn is valued for it's rich, beautiful tone quality, which spans exactly six notes: outside of that range accuracy becomes an issue. Volume and projection is always an issue because the bell faces backwards (and thus, you need twice as many horns than any other brass instrument), it requires an ungodly weird embouchure, and it's played left-handed. Actually, considering what a cruel practical joke the instrument is, maybe it was invented by a trombonist instead.

There are three types of French Horn players: (1) those who lacked the agility of finger and embouchure to succeed at trumpet, (2) those who lacked the tone quality to succeed at low brass, and (3) those who took up the instrument at the recommendation of a band director who, apparently, needed a good laugh. Mozart himself was aware of these three classifications, and they led to his masterpiece work for the horn, A Musical Joke (K. 522). A horn player spends all of their rehearsal time looking confused and trying to figure out just what in the hell went wrong with that last note, anyway.

Trumpets
The primary attribute of any trumpet player is a disconnect with reality. Every trumpet player to have picked up the instrument believes they have a four-octave range; in reality, 99% of trumpet players struggle with any note that has ledger lines. The highest of the brass voices, the trumpets quite regularly have melodic lines and sixteenth-note runs; because of this, most trumpet players never bother developing good tone since they're never on a note long enough for anyone to notice. Trumpet players also frequently develop the aggravating habit of wearing sunglasses indoors.

Trumpets are also one of the only non-string instruments to suffer from "wolf tones": natural feedback created when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the instrument. This is not to be confused with a trumpet player of insufficient skill (i.e., most of them) attempting to play high notes out of their range, a sound that can only be summarized as "wolf bait." Trumpet players' rehearsal time is usually spent congratulating one another for nailing it that last time though while the conductor weeps silently on the podium. After rehearsal the trumpet player will spend several minutes wondering how the inside of his/her instrument case and/or jacket got so wet.

Saxophones
When Adolphe Sax invented his instrument he created a Bb/Eb series for military band and an F/C series for orchestra. Approximately four days later some orchestra conductor realized the saxophones blended well with absolutely no other instrument, and the F/C series (and, by extension, the saxophones' usage in orchestral writing) quickly fell out of favor. The Bb/Eb series of saxophones, like a bad disease, refused to go away; indeed, it even gained favor amongst military bands and eventually became a standard member of marching and concert band instrumentation. The fact that Adolphe Sax is remember more for his saxophones than his saxhorns (advanced brass instruments that had a major influence on the development of the British Brass Band tradition) just goes to prove that people will always remember your failures more than your successes.

Saxophones are good for solo melodic lines and exactly nothing else, because they are too "reedy" sounding to blend with the brass and too brassy and stentorian to blend with the woodwinds. A Frankenstein's monster of an instrument, saxophones combined the best features of the brass (strong, full tone and good projection) with the worst features of the woodwinds (reeds, 183 keys). The Eb Alto and Baritone saxes also have a transposition that brings heartache to new composers until they realize they can just write for the instrument in bass clef and then add three sharps when they're done. Every competent composer eventually stops writing for wind ensemble and takes up writing for orchestra--usually to get away from the saxes.

All saxophone players are insane. Every other member of the ensemble gets great enjoyment from watching and waiting to see what the saxes will do next (tip: never eat anything the saxes bring to the potluck). If you arrive at the rehearsal hall one day and find a 40-foot-tall Trojan Horse that turns out to have been filled with Jello, look no further than the saxes. A sax player's three favorite words are "hey, watch this!" A sax player's rehearsal time is spent looking at the conductor with an unstable grin and laughing spontaneously for no apparent reason. I don't know what the sax players are really thinking about during rehearsal: I don't want to go inside their heads.

Clarinets
Clarinets are possibly the most versatile wind instrument. They are equally adept and low and high registers, with very consistent sound, at playing melody or accompaniment, and at playing smooth melodic lines or whirlwind sixteenth-note runs. The Faustian deal, however, is that wooden clarinet (which sounds far superior to a plastic model) is possibly the most environmentally sensitive instrument outside of the dreaded concert harp. The easiest way to make a young clarinetist cry is to hand her a nice rosewood clarinet and then schedule all your rehearsals for the beach and the desert (preferably on successive days).

A clarinet player always has some sort of water-filled container sitting beneath their chair with reeds soaking in it. It is one of the laws of probability that of the six reeds soaking beneath their chair, two will be too hard to be useful, two will be too soft to be useful, one will be cracked or chipped, and the sixth will play absolutely perfectly aside from the annoying habit of blurting out an ill-placed "HONK" in the middle of every lyrical passage. This is why a wise composer never writes a melody for the clarinets. Tuning a clarinet is an exercise in futility. Write twelve notes for the clarinet and one of them is guaranteed to be out of tune, although your guess is as good as mine as to which one it will be.

Clarinet players are also the most likely members of the ensemble to suffer from "Duffer's Syndrome." Duffer's Syndrome is a golf disease in which a casual, once-a-weekend golfer who has had absolutely no lessons is convinced he could play like Tiger Woods if only he had better equipment. As a result of "Duffer's Syndrome," a clarinet player's rehearsal time is always spent frowning at and fiddling with their reeds and ligature, as if there were some magical combination of reed thickness and screw tightness that could compensate for the fact they haven't practiced all week.

Double-Reeds
Double-reed players are the most likely to go on to teaching careers, because they obviously enjoy being exasperated. Finding a perfect, store-bought double-reed for the bassoon or oboe is only slightly less difficult than finding a unicorn that can sing old Sinatra tunes and shoot fire out of it's eyes. Because of that, many double-reed players will just buy raw Arundo donax cane and create their own reeds; they have a special kit that consists of a knife used to whittle and shape the cane and strands of Rapunzel's hair used to fasten the two pieces of cane together. This makes double-reed players special in that they are the only players in the ensemble allowed to handle knives (though the percussionists and low brass players can often be found watching monkey knife fights in the parking lot every Friday afternoon, since they aren't the ones actually handling the knives this does not count). Interestingly, the double-reed player's cane knife will serve as a suitable tanto blade for anyone looking to commit seppuku after being forced to listen to two hours of bassoon practice.

Double-reed players tend to think that spending fourteen hours a day making reeds endows upon them superior musicianship, but most other members of the ensemble (particularly the brass players, who ordered ten fantastic mouthpieces that will last them for years in the same amount of time it took the double-reed player to unpack his "reed creation lab") just think of double-reed players as complete chumps. Double-reed players also tend to be grouchy because, despite the sizable range and lyrical quality of their instruments, most double-reed parts are written primarily to double other instruments (flutes or clarinets in case of oboe, low brass in case of bassoon; in case of fire, toss double-reed instruments on top to stay warm) or to produce rude sound effects and bodily function noises. Any composer that writes a wind ensemble part for contrabass sarrusophone is a sick individual that needs to seek immediate psychiatric care.

Despite their elitism and grouchy nature, double-reed players are actually very popular to have around in the ensemble, because their presence insures that a random clarinet player cannot approach you and start complaining about their reeds. A double-reed player's rehearsal time is spent either complaining about their reed or working on the reed they will be complaining about tomorrow.

Flutes
The soprano voices of the wind ensemble, the flutes fill the role that the violins would in a symphony orchestra. Agile enough for fast passages and lyrical enough for melodic lines, some of the most difficult wind repertoire is written for the flutes. Such a shame, then, that flutes are like snowflakes: no two players will ever match pitch with one another. The flute player's motto is: "unison IS harmony!"

The flute player's primary role in the wind ensemble is not to provide melody or harmony, but dirt. Flute players are all horrendous gossips, and they know the secrets of every other player in the ensemble (and even the conductor and librarian). The flute player is commonly thought to be ditzy or stupid, but this is inaccurate. In reality, the inefficiency of their instrument's design causes 90% of the air they blow to be lost into the room, thus requiring them to use a lot more air than should be necessary for such a small instrument. This over-blowing starves their brains of oxygen, leading to light-headedness and a countenance often mistaken for unintelligence.

A flute player's rehearsal time is spent either text-messaging their friends or talking to the other flute players. Conductors tolerate this behavior from the flutes when they would not tolerate it from any other section, because as long as a flute player is talking it means they aren't playing the piccolo.

*******

Now that you have a better understanding of the roles of the performers (not the instruments) in the ensemble dynamic, your composing should improve tremendously. If writing decent music remains beyond your grasp, I can only suggest focusing your efforts on the guitar.

(Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson was born in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and originally took up composition after losing a bar bet. He studied musical pathology and the usage of string instruments in Twentieth century warfare under "Stinky" Pete Dawson at the University of the Yukon. He has a Master's degree in Clown Rustling from the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo.)


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 19, 2008 1:58 pm 
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That's better than the how to make a bassoon.

I'll have to read the entire thing some other time.

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 9:14 am 
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Sadly, the flute description is about 98% accurate...sigh.... :twisted:

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 Post subject: Flute
PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 4:14 pm 
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Yeah..flute...LOL Ben...

an instrument that can play NEITHER really loud or really soft...
at Forte they disappear from the blend altogether and at piano are just loud enough to show off their terrible flat intonation tendancies...

but you can bet there will always be 238 if your band because "it was cute and easy to carry" and cheap compared to a sax for beginners...

My whole rehearsal consists of making fun of my flute players...and they still won't go away...(to a flute player any attention must be good attention...)

One day a few weeks ago, between ilnesses, soccer games, etc. I actually had a 6th period band rehearsal where NO flutes showed up...my first comment to the band was.."Look, my dream flute section!!!"

:lol:

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 4:42 pm 
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Hey now Jeff, we're not allll bad :D There's just an abundance of incompetency among most of us :twisted:

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 5:46 pm 
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Haha, I'm pretty guilty of that incompetence. ;p But I do have to say, playing the piccolo should be a license to kill. :twisted:

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 7:23 pm 
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I love the descriptions of the tuba and double reed players; they're spot on. ;)

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 10:47 pm 
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bassoonuba wrote:
I love the descriptions of the tuba and double reed players; they're spot on. ;)

I'm glad you liked it. The line "A double-reed player's rehearsal time is spent either complaining about their reed or working on the reed they will be complaining about tomorrow" is one of my favorites in the whole piece.


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 Post subject: Re: Humor: Orchestration for the Modern Wind Ensemble
PostPosted: Thu Feb 21, 2008 9:15 am 
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Hostrauser wrote:
A percussionist's rehearsal time is spent daydreaming about the current (or next year's) marching band field show or winter percussion show, and they can often be found practicing either of these on drum pads or thighs while the conductor talks to the winds.
OK, while this was spot on, and I did enjoy playing the lead in Anderson's "The Typewriter" my junior year, I was neither happy-go-lucky nor cheerful...


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 21, 2008 9:20 am 
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guardthepiccolo wrote:
Sadly, the flute description is about 98% accurate...sigh.... :twisted:


I think they are ALL pretty accurate.

I esp. liked that part that pointed out the ridiculousness of anyone actually owning a marimba to practice at home with. Practicing marimba parts on an electric keyboard at my house was never the same as the real thing.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 21, 2008 10:45 am 
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The Aceman wrote:
guardthepiccolo wrote:
Sadly, the flute description is about 98% accurate...sigh.... :twisted:


I think they are ALL pretty accurate.

I esp. liked that part that pointed out the ridiculousness of anyone actually owning a marimba to practice at home with. Practicing marimba parts on an electric keyboard at my house was never the same as the real thing.


for marimba and keys, i only have an extremely soft pair of mallets, a somewhat harder pair of mallets, and a pretty useless pair of plastic mallets. i have one set of medium timpani sticks, and i just use my jazz sticks on concert snare. every percussion major here owns a stick/mallet bag bigger and heavier than their own self and the thing is, they enjoy playing those tedious pieces and think they're actually getting something out of doing it.

that's why i'm not a percussion major. i guess drum set players and recording tech majors were too badass to be on this list 8-)

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 22, 2008 3:09 pm 
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As long as they can hammer away on some poor, unsuspecting inanimate object with a pair of sticks the percussionist is content ("unsuspecting inanimate object" consists of everything up to and including sleeping band members on the bus on the way home from festivals and competition; you have been warned).


I used to get on my line for this but hey, at least they were practicing!
I hope all is well with everyone in California.

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